Suzanne Oles wasn't well enough to join the crowd at last year's Miles for Moffitt fundraiser. She was in the middle of chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer.
But, working from the sidelines, she still managed to raise $8,000 for research. This year, she's feeling much better and hopes to raise even more.
"I'm aiming for $15,000. Right now I'm already at $8,000 so I think we will get there," said Oles, a 65-year-old sales rep who lives in Tampa with her husband.
Back in 2005, Oles says she was "living the high life" and preparing to move to Thailand for her job; her husband was already there scouting out a place to live. Then she developed bronchitis that wouldn't go away.
She got a chest X-ray and went to see a specialist, who delivered the bad news. Doctors never said what caused her lung cancer, but Oles was a longtime pack-a-day smoker. (According to the American Cancer Society, smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, but about 20 percent of cases are not related to smoking.)
Oles had surgery on her right lung and immediately quit smoking. "I learned my lesson and quit," she said, "but I watched guys with lung cancer during chemo go outside and smoke. I couldn't believe it. I never had another cigarette."
She was cancer-free for more than nine years. Then in 2014 it came back, this time in her left lung. She had chemotherapy and radiation and still needs bottled oxygen to help her breathe, a side effect of the radiation treatment. She has been cancer-free for the past six months and will have quarterly checkups for the next two years.
"For my particular type of cancer, the only hope is in research," she said, noting that funding for lung cancer research is low compared to funding for other types of cancer. "Research is the only way we're going to beat this disease in general."
Since 2006, Miles for Moffitt has attracted thousands of participants who share the same goal: find ways to prevent and cure cancer. Last year, 6,500 people signed up to walk, run and roll the many different routes available, including an online race. In 2015, the event raised more than $650,000, which will advance research and fund novel new projects.
All the money stays at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. Applications are reviewed by a panel of Moffitt experts, and grants are awarded competitively to the most promising proposals.
Dr. Anna Giuliano has had two studies funded by Miles for Moffitt, including one under way now to find out whether the HPV vaccine — the one given to adolescents and young adults to prevent sexually transmitted cancers — can prevent HPV-related cancers of the head and neck in middle-aged men.
"Sometimes we can combine this money with funding from other sources and do even more," said Giuliano, a cancer epidemiologist at Moffitt. "But every dollar that comes in is so critical to moving our research mission forward. The more people who sign up for this event, the better."
According to race coordinator Sonia Cerundolo, Miles for Moffitt has brought in more than $3 million over the years, enough to fund 37 research projects. Grants are awarded in the year after the money is raised, so last year's donations will be awarded in May of this year. This year's donations will be awarded in 2017.
Oles looks forward to walking with her team of donors this year and plans to thank all of them at a brunch she's hosting after the race. She asks family members, friends, work colleagues and neighbors to donate and participate.
If anyone wants to give her a gift for a birthday or a holiday, she asks them to make a donation to her Miles for Moffitt fund. She likes knowing every dollar raised stays at Moffitt and funds local researchers. It's research that may one day help her or someone else.
Oles lost her 92-year-old mother to ovarian cancer a few weeks ago. "Cancer touches everybody," she said.
Contact Irene Maher at [email protected]